Wrot prowled the great ship from one end to the other, poking his nose into the engine room, the command deck, the living quarters, and the food halls, sampling the mood of the mixed crew. Emotions varied from excitement at being summoned to such a faraway location to apprehension over what awaited them, and always among the humans simmered insatiable curiosity. Their capacity for sheer inquisitiveness never failed to surprise him despite his long association with the species.

Certain decks had been designated Jao, others human. The two did not mingle much off-duty, which made sense since their recreational activities and dietary habits were vastly different. But the tendency of the two contingents to keep to themselves concerned him. They all had to pull together, braiding the strengths of their two species so that they were stronger in unison than either could ever be alone.

Tully had begun accepting Jao into his reconnaissance unit over a year ago, which was highly unusual and considered an experimental policy by the Bond. Such Jao were technically considered jinau, which normally would have been a grave demotion. Only Jao of the lowest ranked kochan would ever consider making such a choice. Typically, Tully’s Jao jinau resigned from their natal kochan and joined the Terran taif.

The new taif was turning out to be much more successful than anticipated, though. It seemed, despite their reputation, a number of low kochan had given birth to individuals who had the potential to be far more than merely competent dullards. These often became a credit to Terra Taif once they had the opportunity to make themselves of more use with increased responsibilities. Humans were quite fierce in their belief in the value of the individual over the group, and although Wrot would never go that far, it seemed that encouraging individuals to make the most of their innate talents, whatever their origins, possessed a certain merit.

In the ship-afternoon, Wrot dropped by Deck Forty-Six’s food hall to meet Caitlin Kralik and Rob Wiley and answer some of their questions, if he could. The room was mostly empty at the moment, just a few humans scattered about, seated at green-covered tables, many consuming that vile sludge called “coffee.” Just the reek of it was enough to ruin his appetite.

Heads turned as he passed, but no one hailed him. Caitlin and Rob Wiley were seated at a table in the far corner, their backs to a vidscreen streaming a view of the stars ahead of them from the Command Deck. The former member of the Resistance was a brown-skinned man, wiry, but still strong for his age. A twisted scar across the heartward side of his face spoke eloquently of old battles and the man’s long-standing fight for survival.

“Vaist,” the human woman said, using the inferior-to-superior form of the greeting, I see you. She rose, bowed her head and positioned her arms into the graceful curves of recognizing-authority.

Her slight stature compared to his own species was deceptive, Wrot thought ruefully. Inside, he knew this one was made of steel. Even Oppuk krinnu ava Narvo had learned that to his utter misfortune. The Jao shook his head, a bit of highly useful human body-language he’d acquired long ago. “None of that, girl,” he said. “You’re just trying to make me feel old!”

“Well, you must be in charge,” she said. “I know the Preceptor told you who’s out there in that nebula. He certainly didn’t tell me.”

“He told me what he suspects,” Wrot said, sliding onto the chair across from Wiley. It creaked beneath his weight, the furniture in here intended for human dimensions, not Jao. “Which is hardly the same thing, and it would be pointless to run about spreading rumors and getting everyone all excited until we know the truth of it.”

“You wretch!” she said with a placating smile. “You and Ronz both know how miserably curious humans are! You’re just trying to make us all crazy!”

Wiley’s dark face was watching the exchange with half-lidded eyes. He’d been slowly changing his attitude toward Earth’s conquerors since being reinstated in the military by Aille, but the old Resistance fighter had spent too many years fighting Jao to unbend easily. Distrust and enmity toward Terra’s previous foes ran deep in his character. He leaned back in his chair and laced his hands over the slight paunch he’d been developing since gaining access to a decent diet.

“So you admit that there’s something to get excited about,” he said, using Wrot’s words against him. Despite his lack of Jao postures, the former Resistance fighter managed to convey craftiness.

“More like someone to get excited about,” Caitlin said. She’d angled her arms and body in a sketchy approximation of sly-expectation, hampered by her seated position.

“You’ll either see what Ronz suspected when we get there,” Wrot said, refusing, as a human might say, to rise to the bait, “or none of us will see anything but gas and dust and debris. First, though, we have to reach the proper coordinates and make our jump.”

“Two more days until transition is what I’ve heard,” Wiley said. He narrowed his dark-brown eyes. Though lacking green fire, they were oddly expressive. Wrot could almost see the questions burning inside the grizzled old fighter’s head. “And here I thought space travel was supposed to be so blamed fast. I swear I could have walked to the Rockies and back from Pascagoula already.”

“Terra-Captain Dannet is being rightfully cautious,” Wrot said. “She understands the dangers inherent in emerging in the nebula all too well, so she’ll position the Lexington at the coordinates needed for optimal safety before giving the go-ahead to activate the framepoint.”

“Just a lot of fancy talk, if you ask me, for ‘we’re not there yet,'” Wiley said, shoving his chair back.

Caitlin smothered a laugh with one hand, cueing Wrot that the statement was meant to be humorous. Unfortunately, the implied wit eluded him. He had spent over twenty years on Terra, as humans reckoned such things, but their humor was difficult to grasp. All too often, though he had diligently studied the art of joking, he just did not “get it.” Perhaps Caitlin would explain what he’d missed later.

“At any rate, Rob has some concerns,” Caitlin said. Her blond hair was tied back, her manner forthright. “Serious ones that I hear a number of the human crew share. I wanted you to have a chance to answer.”

Wiley gave Wrot a hard look. “I think the reason your Bond filled this ship with humans was that they don’t expect us to come back. Losing a ship full of jinau wouldn’t be such a big problem as losing one crammed with high status Jao.”

Wrot’s whiskers wilted into utter bafflement. “Leaving aside the matter of deliberately sacrificing several thousand highly trained jinau troops,” he said, “do you really think Preceptor Ronz would just throw away this expensive new ship on a mere whim?”

“I think no one knows what goes on inside his head,” Wiley said stubbornly, “except maybe another Jao.”

“Certainly not this Jao,” Wrot said.

Wiley ran a hand back over his tightly curled graying hair. “Then just come out with it. What the hell could be so freaking important that the Bond would risk all our lives just to go take a poke at it?”

“Something that could change everything, if it’s really there,” Wrot said.

Caitlin inhaled suddenly. She sat forward in her chair. Her blue-gray eyes turned to Wiley. “And I’m betting this is something that would not be glad to see the Jao.”

“And why is that?” Wiley gazed at him with a sour expression. “What did you lot do to them?”

What we used to do to everyone, Wrot thought morosely, even though the Jao’s wholesale slaughter of alien species under the direction of the Ekhat had ended a thousand years before his own birth. “Humans are here because Preceptor Ronz thought they might be useful, given what we may find in the nebula,” he said. “Think! Would he risk members of Aille’s own service if it was only to throw away their lives on a useless gesture?”